A Shanghai Minute

enRoute, October 2010

It’s Saturday night and Yuyintang, Shanghai’s most revered rock venue, is over capacity. I bob, weave and apologize my way up to the front row as a local rock trio, the Beat Bandits, takes the stage. Led by Misuzu, a dapper 30-year-old Shanghainese wearing a flat cap, vest and tie, the Bandits open with a catchy surf-inspired tune. The crowd responds immediately with rhythmic bopping. When the band calls out “Ooh,” the crowd replies, on beat, “Aah.” Soon I, too, am bopping and aah-ing.
Midway through the set, I step out to Yuyintang’s back patio, which sits on a lush public garden. Amid the flimsy patio furniture, I meet Zhang Haisheng, the venue’s soft-spoken owner. “When we opened in 2003, there were only a few bands in Shanghai,” he tells me. “Now there are a number of venues and bands of every genre.” Yuyintang, he explains, is Chinese for music nurturing house. Shang’s ambitions are grand; he’d like to see Shanghai have a musical moment like Seattle in the 1990s or Montreal in the early 2000s. But his scale is modest; Yuyintang’s official capacity is about 100. Still, it’s an enthusiastic 100.
Enthusiasm, it turns out, is in no short supply in Shanghai. Nearly a century after writers and artists from around the world first flocked here, this port city is re-establishing itself as a global creative capital. Just as the Expo 2010 Shanghai China propelled a building boom that remodelled part of the city’s skyline and added new infrastructure – such as the renovated riverfront promenade along the historic Bund, visible from my hotel room – a slew of independent artists and musicians is reshaping the city’s cultural landscape. Take the Beat Bandits; they’re rockin’ in a city that had virtually no rock music a decade ago. So, too, are the people crammed into Yuyintang. And so I realize that as they bop up and down, they might seem to be staying in one place, but in fact they are moving forward.

I don’t know if it’s the jetlag, my poor sense of direction or Shanghai’s winding highways, intersecting rivers and spotty signage, but on my first day in this city of 20 million, I’m thoroughly disoriented. I’m hoping that illustrator and graphic designer Nini Sum will be forgiving when I arrive late at her century-old row house on a leafy courtyard in the French Concession. I bring her a jasmine tea from the nearby Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf as a peace offering.
When I enter Sum’s three-floor apartment, she leads me up a flight of creaky wooden stairs to her compact home studio, where I see a surreal David Lynch-inspired painting of a one-eyed man with a tree branch for a head. Sum tells me that last year she opened IdleBeats, a screen-printing studio that doubles as a kind of community centre for budding artists. “We’re the first studio in town to invite artists to design prints, gig posters and T-shirts,” she says, adding that the idea is resonating with a “younger generation – you know, 20-year-olds.” Even though some of her friends are only three years older than her – Sum is 23 – “their style has already passed,” she says.
Leaving behind Sum’s quiet courtyard, it hits me that, like Manhattan with the volume turned up, the city seems to be in perpetual motion. I watch a car executing a three-point turn and, as it reverses, pedestrians and scooters zip around it. A rickety red bike cruises by, but I can’t see its rider, who’s concealed by Styrofoam boxes, piled five metres high. There must be an eyehole somewhere, I think, chuckling.
But Shanghai’s maddening pace has a quirky flip side. Everywhere I see people sleeping on subways and in taxicabs, but I only really clue in while stuck in traffic on a six-lane highway. I look to my left and see a cab full of adults – four of them – sound asleep. “What’s with all the napping?” I ask Ken, my Singaporean guide. “People sleep whenever they can,” he says, attributing it to the city’s outrageous work ethic. “Everyone’s tired.”
The narcolepsy is all the more remarkable given the city’s soundtrack – a symphony of car horns, varying in pitch, volume and tone. By late afternoon each day, I find myself craving quiet, and when I enter the century-old low-rise buildings at 696 Weihai Road, near the People’s Square, I feel a calm wash over me. With time to kill before my meeting with the artist Hangfeng Chen, I wander through the narrow hallways of the complex, originally used for opium storage. Unlike the more commercially minded gallery district of Moganshan Lu, which I’d visited in the morning, there’s no gift shop here and not every door leads to a gallery; some open to artists’ studios. I discover staggeringly beautiful landscape photography and portraiture at galleries like StageBACK and White Factory, along with elaborate graffiti on the buildings’ walls. It brings to mind SoHo in the 1970s, when artists ruled lower Manhattan, and I’m reminded of something Sum said: “People here are open to new ideas. More and more, this city is becoming like New York.”
The late-afternoon sunshine illuminates a wall of peeling green paint as I make my way to Chen’s bright, airy studio, where I find him making tea. The only sign of dereliction is the trash hanging from his ceiling – an installation he calls Luxurious Riffraff. On one wall, I see an intricately detailed, symmetrical Chinese paper cut. Unlike traditional paper cuts, Chen’s is all swooshes and golden arches. “In the past, paper cuts were inspired by nature and animals,” he says. “With my Logomania series, I’m doing the same – taking inspiration from our surroundings.”
In the days following our meeting, I see Chen’s work just about everywhere: as art at OV Gallery in the French Concession and as logos for the restaurant Element Fresh and the clothing retailer Z&A, both of which are ubiquitous in Shanghai. The tension between logo creation and anti-logo art, Chen says, is a product of the city’s schizophrenia. “People call this city a commercial centre, but I see a lot of interesting art here.”

The early evening skies are clearing as I enter Ferguson Lane, a treed 1930s-era cobblestone courtyard in what was once a French Concession hospital. I’m attending an opening at the Leo Gallery for the artist Li Lei. The six-figure price tag commanded by his duotone abstract works – green backdrops splattered with blue; black swaths with grey scratches – is the subject of much cocktail chatter or, at least, the cocktail chatter I understand. In addition to the popping of champagne bottles, I hear snippets of French, German, Mandarin and Korean – and then, panting. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a pug, his tongue nearly dragging on the ground, barrelling toward me. Zipping past my outstretched hand, he darts frantically through the crowd.
“You’ll have to fight for Dim Sum’s attention,” a woman says in a posh London accent. Alison Yeung – purple hair, mismatched sneakers, flirtatious smile – introduces herself. She’s a shoe designer, and her shop is right here in the courtyard. Before long, I’m standing on a purple carpet in the flagship of Mary Ching amid a line of luxe slippers and provocative stilettos that Yeung describes as “Alice in Wonderland meets boudoir.” (Recent collections have been named Orient Erotica and Forbidden Treasures.) The line seems a sure bet in a city with a ballooning appetite for Louis Vuitton and Gucci, but Yeung says that she’s facing resistance. “There’s a stigma attached to luxury goods made in China. Our challenge is to overcome that.”
Like Alison Yeung, Yan Yang is banking on shifting tastes. I meet the founder of independent record label Zhu Lu He Feng a few days later backstage at the new music venue Mao Livehouse. He removes oversize headphones to greet me, then takes me through the hall, which has high walls painted in red. Rusted industrial light fixtures hang above us. “I wanted to form my label three years ago,” he says, “but the scene wasn’t mature enough. Now the market’s changed.” Since launching last year, he’s signed seven bands. (He drums for two of them: Pinkberry and Sonnet.) Local talent is thriving, and the music community – virtually non-existent just a few years ago – is growing quickly around it. “The previous generation, five years older, doesn’t know rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “But once my class graduated from university and started working in all sorts of different industries, we began to change society by bringing our colleagues to see live shows and introducing them to rock ’n’ roll.”

Tonight, at Yuyintang, everyone likes rock ’n’ roll. By 1 a.m., the evening’s final act, the Fever Machine – a trio of expats from France, the U.S. and Ecuador – wraps up its set, and I, along with the crowd, am still buzzing. Before I can get in line for a grilled skewer of meat outside the venue (a fixture outside Shanghai’s clubs), I’m swept into a cab by a group of new friends en route to Shelter, a nightclub in a former bomb shelter. To my right, a girl is channelling Japanese cool, wearing thick-framed black circular glasses and a striped shirt; to my left, a guy is wearing a straw porkpie hat and skinny jeans. For a moment, I feel like I could be in Brooklyn – or Tokyo.

At Shelter, we descend a long flight of stairs and head deep underground. A black-and-white flat screen TV, mounted above the DJ booth, displays the turntables as folks bob, weave and gyrate to the booming break beats. I guzzle a Tsingtao beer and then step onto the edge of the dance floor. I am hesitant, observing the crowd and rocking self-consciously. Soon, however, my new friends – whose names I never quite learn – pull me toward them. I submit and melt into the crowd. I am dancing, oblivious to the sweat dripping off my forehead and to the first light of day kissing the buildings a couple of stories overhead. It’s late, but I’m not tired. Tomorrow can wait – for a little while, at least.

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